The Harvard Art Museums has received a landmark gift of 330 17th-century Dutch and Flemish drawings, transforming the institution’s collection of Dutch works on paper into perhaps the most significant of its kind in North America, rivaling the great collections of Europe.
The promised gift from longtime collector George Abrams is widely considered one of the most important collections in private hands, with drawings by Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, and more than 100 other artists.
It arrives at a heady time for Dutch art in Boston: Less than a month ago, Boston-area collectors Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie bequeathed a massive gift of 113 paintings from the Dutch Golden Age to the Museum of Fine Arts, which is also establishing a scholarly Center for Netherlandish Art.
The transfer of these three private collections to the public sphere marks a breathtakingly swift ascent for Greater Boston as a global leader in Dutch art.
“It’s incredibly exciting for Boston, but also for the field: Now there’s a place to go in the United States,” said Harvard Art Museums director Martha Tedeschi. “Boston’s a fantastic place for depth like this, so I see it as a very happy moment for Boston as a cultural capital.”
Tedeschi, who described the gift as a “quantum leap” for the Harvard collection, noted that Abrams and his late wife, Maida, previously gave some 140 Dutch drawings to the museum. She said the combined donation of nearly 500 works “makes [Harvard] the place in this country to study Dutch drawings.” Tedeschi and Abrams declined to estimate the value of the new gift.
Abrams, 85, who graduated from both Harvard College and Harvard Law School, has had a wide-ranging career as an attorney, from working for Senator Ted Kennedy as general counsel of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Refugees in the 1960s, to representing media mogul Sumner Redstone for more than 50 years.
Abrams began collecting Old Master Dutch drawings with his wife in the early 1960s, when most US collectors and museums preferred French and Italian works.
“We loved the immediacy and intimacy of many of the Dutch artists, and we loved that they dealt with everyday things,” said Abrams, who would travel frequently to Europe, visiting dealers, collectors, and auction houses in search of drawings. “We had wonderful years in the early ’60s and ’70s without a lot of substantial competition. We never had enough money, but the drawings were not terribly expensive. We drove around in old automobiles, and Maida never had a fur coat or fancy jewelry because we were always intent on using whatever money we could toward acquiring drawings.”
They immersed themselves in the field, building a library that now contains some 7,000 volumes and befriending many leading scholars.
“These are friends of his who go to his house, and they sit and talk about drawings,” said Arthur K. Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, which recently exhibited some of Abrams’s drawings.
These small, intimate works, often unsigned, afford glimpses of everyday life in the Netherlands of the 17th century. And while a painting can hide a mistake or mask an abandoned direction, a drawing is less forgiving — affording scholars a clear understanding of an artist’s process.
“You can feel much closer to the artist,” said Abrams, whose collection contains works from the 16th to 18th centuries. “Paintings are planned, but drawings flow naturally from the artist’s mind to their hand to the paper. It’s a quick circuit.”
Abrams has exhibited the collection widely, with shows devoted to it at the British Museum in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Museum of Fine Arts, and others.
“He’s a dominant force in the field of Dutch drawings, and really a kind of elder statesman of the drawings world,” said Edouard Kopp, curator of drawings at the Harvard Art Museums. “He’s been collecting [for five decades] with remarkable perseverance, vision, and unfailing passion. And he’s done that very wisely.”
Although Maida died in 2002, George Abrams has continued to collect (he also has smaller but remarkable collections of Dutch paintings, medals, and works in bronze). Today, the wide-ranging drawing collection includes not only works by Rembrandt, but also those of his students and circle.
“We thought we would never have enough money to buy a Rembrandt, but over the years we were fortunate, and we ended up with, well, 9½ Rembrandts,” said Abrams. “Nine wonderful Rembrandts that everyone agrees upon, and one drawing that some people believe is a Rembrandt and some people don’t.”
Abrams has already donated two Rembrandts to the museum. He’s including five more in the current gift. One highlight is a study of four male heads Rembrandt drew around 1636.
“It’s a perfect example of Rembrandt’s ability to convey emotion with pen and ink,” said Abrams. “You can see him working and thinking.”
Abrams has maintained a close relationship with both the MFA, where he remains an honorary trustee, and the Harvard Art Museums, where in addition to having a curatorship named in his and Maida’s honor, he has served on the museum’s visiting committee.
As a friend of both the van Otterloos and Weatherbies, Abrams was one of the first to suggest the creation of a Netherlandish center, and he spoke with them at length about joining their recent gift to the MFA.
“That was one of the hardest decisions I had to make,” he said, noting that Harvard has long been a center for Old Master drawings. “They want their paintings to be on exhibition as much as possible, but drawings have a fragility. You have to limit their exhibition and exposure to light. You can make them available to students and scholars and the public that want to go see them, and Harvard will do that.”
Indeed, anyone from the public can request to see works from the collection at the museum’s Art Study Center. And leaders at Harvard and the MFA say they plan to collaborate on programming around Dutch art.
For Abrams, who is holding back about 50 drawings, donating the collection has been a difficult decision.
“They’re part of your existence: Each one has stories and background and people involved,” he said. “And when you give something like that away, there’s a feeling of loss. It’s also a clear indication of your mortality, because if you could, you’d keep them for ever and ever and you’d live for ever and ever, but you can’t, so you’ve got to find a good home. And what’s a good home? A place where students and the public have an opportunity to see it and enjoy it.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.